Muslim Identity and Integration in France

To be French is to be a citizen of France, regardless of your race, origin, or religion. This is a vaunted and lofty ideal to hold and one which offers a reassurance of acceptance and fair treatment.

In reality, the path to inclusion, no matter what the system of integration, is fraught with anxiety, tension, and the vestiges of history. This is a story familiar to countries across Europe where diversity and the perceived irreconcilable nature of Muslim integration and identity preoccupy national debates, policies, and actions. Instead of economic and social policies to improve the situation of all members of society, there is an unhealthy focus on culture and religion.

Our report Muslims in Marseille examines the lives of ordinary individuals in the third district of the city and their hopes and aspirations. Its findings indicate a strong Marseillais identity and a compatibility of French values with their ethnic and religious backgrounds. However, it also highlights the struggle faced by residents in areas of the city which are blighted by poverty and where unemployment, poor housing, and limited civic and political participation should be urgent policy requirements.

We spoke to Jocelyn Cesari, a French political scientist and a research associate and lecturer at Harvard University. As an advisory board member for the At Home in Europe Project Muslims in EU Cities series, she shares some of her thoughts on secularism and the debate on identity in France.

Can you tell me a little bit about the national rhetoric on Muslims and Islam in France and the role identity plays in the debate?

Islam and its expressions (from dress code to prayers) have been defined in the last 15 years as the opposite of secularism and equality that French define as the pillars of their national identities.

The Open Society Foundations recently released a report on Muslims in Marseille. Are there any findings in the report that you think would surprise people in France?

Indeed a lot of people will be surprised to learn that on average Muslims behave like the other citizens of Marseille. They are also very proud of their local identity as much as the other people of Marseille (something I had the occasion to investigate myself more than 10 years ago with other colleagues with whom we published Plus Marseillais que moi, tu meurs! ("More Marseillais than me? No chance!").

What do you think is the appeal of Front national, a far-right political party that is anti-Muslim/anti-Islam?

The National Front started in the 1980s as an anti-immigrant party that has reshaped its discourse to become anti-Islam, adjusting to the greater fear of cultural difference brought by the presence of Muslims as nationals and citizens.

Do you think there is a difference between the national perception of the failure of Muslims to integrate and the reality of everyday integration at the local level?

Yes it does. Everywhere, not only in Marseilles, the local level is where integration processes happen (civic/cultural/economic).

What do you think policymakers can do to help Muslims and other minorities feel more accepted in France?

They should emphasize the “normality” of Muslims: they are not exceptional because they are Muslims; actually Islam does not influence very much most of their choices when they act as citizens.

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1 Comment


I agree, there is definitely an unhealthy focus on religion and culture worldwide.
However, I still believe the path to inclusion for all Muslim women, is through their actions and ability to integrate with mainstream society, and I know it is already happening.
But at a middle class level, it is taking a little longer.
Whether this is out of fear of acceptance, or whether some other issue, I am not sure.
France certainly has had fair treatment towards different cultures in the past, but with all the fundamentalist attitudes around, people are naturally wary of the unknown.
I also believe that most people are intelligent enough to distinguish between radical and mainstream Muslim, but the press has focused solely on the horrors, never showing compassion, in my view, of all the Muslim women behind the scene,who battle it out, trying to keep some form of normality within their families.
It is amazing to see, women from different cultures and religions getting together.
It is fear that sets us apart, and it is wrong.
When we take the time to enjoy each others cultures, that is true diversity. Because then we get to see the truth, the richness of integration is wonderful.
Concerning the far-right party in France, most countries have that problem, and it never concerns the majority, it is always the minority that feel that way.
Whatever happens in the future for Muslims, very much depends on the women coming out and speaking up, to show the world "normality" as it is in their culture and beliefs.
Not the way the press portrays them.
I think they have been unfairly treated as a whole.
It brings to mind,the German nation and it's people, who had to tolerate much abuse after the war. Like it was the crime of the whole nation.
I would think, we humans need to up the levels of compassion and understanding for other cultures.

I would love to offer my love and support for all the Muslim men,women and children worldwide, speak up, let the world know you, as you would like to be known.

Eventually someone will listen
Remember, there are a lot of people out in the world who do have compassion for you.

With much love and acceptance
Sharon Mather

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